Conservatism is so strong on the West Texas plains, nobody there even pretends the open-seat GOP congressional primary is about ideology. There is little daylight between the candidates on the issues. Instead, this contest is about money, allies and the future of Texas Republican politics.
Early voters head to the polls this week to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer in his 19th Congressional District. The March 1 primary narrowed the contest down to two GOP candidates: Lubbock Mayor Glen Robertson and former Texas Tech University Vice Chancellor Jodey Arrington.
Both candidates advocate for strong national and border security, reducing the national debt and federal protections for cotton growers.
But the fate of Arrington’s campaign could answer a larger question: Does the old guard of Texas Republicans — the power brokers who moved the state into the GOP column long before the ascent of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and the Tea Party — still hold any sway over state Republican politics?
Arrington has the backing of two of the most powerful Republicans in Texas history — President George W. Bush and former Gov. Rick Perry. But Robertson is countering with his own heft: he's poured well over $1 million into his campaign.
And so the race has boiled down to each man’s background. For Robertson, it’s about his record as Lubbock mayor and the fact that he’s mostly funding his own campaign. For Arrington, the campaign has centered on his tenure as an administrator at Texas Tech and his connections to fading Texas political power brokers.
And nobody in West Texas is confident they know how this thing will play out through the May 24 runoff election.
“It’s touch and go,” said Lubbock County GOP Chairman Carl Tepper. “These are NFL-quality campaigns, where each side is able to punch, counter-punch."
“They’ve been very disciplined,” he added. “The ads haven’t been over the top or silly.”
The Texas 19th District is the 11th-most conservative seat in the country, per the Cook Political Report. Robertson narrowly edged out Arrington as the top finisher in the March 1 primary, and the two men advanced to the May 24 runoff.
The person who wins the runoff will have an all-but-certain lock on winning the congressional seat in the November general election. No Democrat is on the ballot, and the GOP runoff victor will face nominal competition from Green and Libertarian Party candidates.
With 29 counties, the district's population bases are Lubbock and Abilene. But it’s a mostly rural area, taking in much of the New Mexican border and stretching east toward Fort Worth.
Nationally, the race is of interest for two reasons: Robertson has spent a staggering sum — well over $1 million — outpacing nearly all other congressional self-funders; and Arrington’s candidacy has revived some of President Bush's old political network’s interest in state politics.
In all, Robertson has personally backed his campaign with about $1.4 million. Only five other U.S. House candidates are on track to spend more, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
One of those candidates is a fellow Texan, Democratic attorney Vicente Gonzalez, who is running in the 15th Congressional District to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa.
Beyond his own personal loan of $1.1 million to the campaign, Robertson took out a $350,000 bank loan to finance his messaging.
Robertson made his money from a series of business interests, including a commercial real estate firm and a local country club. He said in an interview that asking for donations is a form of “selling out.”
“I was raised by a man who told me you don’t ask people for money,” he said.
Robertson used that money to run a professionalized campaign with television and digital ads, polling and other forms of consulting.
But Arrington has his own financial support. He is running a more traditional donor-driven House race organization. And he has the connections to do so. He served as an adviser in Bush’s White House. Upon returning home, he became an administrator at his alma mater, Texas Tech University.
Both Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush made personal donations to the Arrington campaign. Both spent the years since he left office mostly avoiding state politics.
Furthermore, an Ohio-registered super PAC called Texans for Integrity spent $73,000 backing Arrington. At least a handful of the organization's donors live in the Lubbock area.
Arrington also picked up Perry's endorsement in April.
“I am honored to have Governor Perry’s endorsement and support from my former boss, President George W. Bush,” Arrington said in a statement. “They are West Texans who know something about leadership and what it will take to get our country back.”
Beyond the Bushes, Arrington donors include Bush allies such as former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and Bush political adviser Karl Rove.
But Bush and Perry are not just remote statewide figures in this region. Perry’s hometown — Paint Creek — is in the district, and Bush’s early home base of Midland is just a short drive from the 19th District's lines.
Arrington's rival hopes the support plays differently for 19th District voters and aimed to drive that home in his campaign message.
In his political ads, Robertson charges Arrington with being part of "the establishment." He also went after Arrington's record at Texas Tech, accusing him of not opposing in-state tuition for undocumented workers, sparking the ire of three former Texas Tech regents.
Robertson, does, however have the support of one prominent member of the Red Raider community: former men's basketball coach Bobby Knight.
Arrington is also on the attack, criticizing Robertson's mayoral fiscal record in a television ad. Robertson has been mayor of Lubbock since 2012, when he defeated the incumbent by a near two-to-one margin.
Hardly anyone in the region is willing to guess who is going to win, even the candidates.
“I tell you, it’s going to be very tight,” Robertson said.
Tepper, the local GOP chairman, said both candidates deployed their resources and endorsements as effectively as he’s ever seen in a local contest.
“I’ve been really impressed with both candidates, and I don’t know which way this one is going,” he said.
Disclosure: Texas Tech University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.